This was the fourth election to the assembly of the country’s only Muslim-majority State since the eruption of armed conflict in 1989. What makes this round different from the earlier ones is that unarguably, post-militancy, this is the first time a huge response has been witnessed — both in terms of campaigning and voter turnout…’ The youth have given New Delhi a chance. Now it is up to the policy-makers in Delhi to respect their political choices.’…
Following the devastating floods that hit Jammu and Kashmir in September, many were apprehensive about the voter turnout when the Election Commission announced the dates for elections to the State assembly. The enthusiasm of the voters and the vibrant and intense campaigning surprised both pro- and anti-election parties and politicians. This was the fourth election to the State assembly since the eruption of armed conflict in 1989. What makes this round different from the earlier ones is that unarguably, post-militancy, this is the first time a huge response has been witnessed — both in terms of campaigning and voter turnout. Like in the past, separatist and militant outfits gave a call for boycotting the elections, insisting that ‘India uses elections as a proof of her legitimate hold on Kashmir.’ Today, they have been left embarrassed.
In the polling phases, a high voter turnout rendered the boycott discourse bereft of logic and argument. Another phenomenon witnessed at the hustings was the Bharatiya Janata Party’s emergence on the electoral scene. Armed with the slogan ‘Chalo chalein Modi ke saath’, the BJP attempted to accomplish its much-hyped and much-debated ‘Mission 44+’. The BJP sought to secure at least 44 seats in the 87-member House to form a Government in the country’s only Muslim-majority State. While there were a lot of ifs and buts attached to the party’s ambitious ‘mission,’ what is significant is the fact that for the first time in the troubled political history of Jammu and Kashmir, the BJP has become so relevant.
Big hoardings featuring Narendra Modi with his ‘Sab ka Vikas’ slogans dotted the valley’s market squares and major roads. The Prime Minister addressed election rallies in different parts of the State, with a significant one in Srinagar on December 8.
Responding to the unexpected public attention in the valley, along with its typical media blitzkrieg, the BJP conducted itself discreetly on sensitive issues like Article 370.
In his address at the Sher-e-Kashmir Stadium in Srinagar, Modi was tactical in his speech. He neither mentioned Article 370, nor terrorism or Pakistan. Instead, he tried to be compassionate, saying: ‘I, as your Pradhan Sevak, have come to share your pain and anguish. Your sorrow is my sorrow; your pain is my pain; your problem is my problem…’
Taking maximum advantage of the popular disillusionment towards political parties, particularly the ruling combine of the National Conference and Congress, the BJP has succeeded in establishing its base in Kashmir. The BJP’s arm in the valley is run by Kashmiri Muslims and the party stunningly became part of the election discourse in a place where any kind of association with the ‘communal’ party would have earlier invited ridicule. The party also boasted of being the only one to have given maximum number of tickets to women in the Kashmir province — three, all of them being Muslim.
“We have got an overwhelming response from the people in Kashmir, as they have realised that other parties had been exploiting them in the name of hollow slogans so far,” said Ramesh Arora, the BJP’s election in-charge for Kashmir. Another significant aspect noticed in the J&K polls was the quality and quantity of the youth motivated to be part of the elections. Young Kashmiris were seen at the forefront of the electioneering, with a good number of them contesting independently or on the tickets of different parties. Be it 29-year-old Yawar Masoodi, contesting from the Pampore constituency in Pulwama district, or 35-year-old Zeeshan Pandit, contesting from the Amira Kadal constituency in Srinagar, the youth of Kashmir were out to assert themselves in the electoral arena. So what drove the youth towards yesteryear’s forbidden fruit? “Corruption, exploitation and unemployment,” says Waheed-ul-Rahman Parra, who heads the Peoples Democratic Party’s youth wing.
Maintaining that the youth of Kashmir have realised the importance of their vote, Abdul Maajid Banday, chief spokesperson of the newly-formed Awami Ittihad Party, asserted: “The youth have given New Delhi a chance; it is like they have taken the first step. Now it is up to the policy-makers in Delhi to respect their political choices.” Along with the issue of jobs and corruption, the youth want the police and other security force agencies to be more accountable. “In my area, the army commits excesses against the people, even takes them for forced labour. I have proof of that. This is one of the reasons I quit my job to fight the elections,” Sajad Mohiudin Sheikh, a lawyer contesting from the separatist bastion of Sopore on an AIP ticket, told Rediff.com
Against the backdrop of at least 118 civilian killings, most of them young boys, in the street protests of the summer of 2010 and the subsequent detention and prosecution of many by the police, there is a prevalent resentment against the forces among the youth of Kashmir.
If the BJP’s conspicuous visibility on the valley’s political scene and involvement of the youth are significant ‘firsts’ in this assembly election, separatist-turned mainstream politician Sajjad Lone’s joining the assembly election fray was also phenomenal.
Having lost in the previous two Lok Sabha polls, Lone’s seat Handwara in the border district of Kupwara, where he was in direct contest with the National Conference candidate, was keenly watched and he did not disappoint. Lone’s presence on the election scene galvanised the youth in the border district, whom he has promised ‘change,’ and ‘salvage from exploitative politics.’ Political observers believe that his success ( or had it been even failure ) will have a bearing not only on the heady politician’s political future, but also on the relevance of the ‘politics of boycott’ in the changing political landscape.